My son had just blown out the candles on his 3-year-old birthday cake when the hemorrhage began. I was eight weeks pregnant.
Not wanting to put a damper on the celebration, I whispered to my mom and slipped upstairs. She covered me with blankets as the chills set in, and brought me a mug of hot tea.
Soon my Grandma appeared. She had only learned hours earlier about the pregnancy. Now I told her I thought I was losing the baby. She found some holy water, blessed me, and prayed that God would preserve the life of my child.
The bleeding slowed, but it was unclear if the baby had survived. A few days later, an ultrasound showed a beating heart … and a subchorionic hemorrhage.
I was put on partial bed rest. With three children under five, my adjunct teaching position at Marian University, and my husband Joe being in the thick of harvest season on our farm, restricting my movement seemed nearly impossible. But our family stepped in.
My mom extended her visit in Wisconsin so she could help. My sisters-in-law, aunts and cousins brought food. My mother-in-law pitched in with babysitting. And we all kept praying.
After about six weeks in this state, the hemorrhage disappeared. Five months later, Gianna Agnes arrived, strong and healthy. But soon we noticed that her vision wasn’t normal. We all began to pray intently for her yet again.
Meanwhile, life went on as usual, until I received an invitation from the Pontifical Council for the Laity to participate in a study seminar in Rome focused on Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.”
This letter had been instrumental in my “re-version” to Catholicism because of its emphasis on the value of women in the church and the world. I laid awake thinking how incredible it would be to attend this conference. And how impossible. With a nursing baby, three other young children, and the conference date in the thick of harvest season, I felt I had to turn down the invitation. So I did.
But then our family stepped in. Again. My dad offered to accompany me to Rome to help with Gianna. My mom and mother-in-law offered to help with the other children back home. So I asked the conference organizer if it was too late to accept. It was. They had just given my spot away. But my brother, Dominican Fr. Anthony Giambrone, prayed, through the intercession of St. Monica, that I would be able to attend nonetheless. A week later, I was granted special permission to participate.
I began imagining a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Gianna’s heavenly patronesses – who were both Italian – but I discovered there were no relics of St. Gianna Beretta Molla near Rome.
The day before our departure, however, when we were in La Crosse for a family wedding, my brother concelebrated Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On walking in, we noticed a side altar dedicated to St. Gianna. Behind a locked glass door stood a first class relic of Gianna’s patroness! One of the Franciscan brothers blessed Gianna with the relic. At the moment it touched her, Gianna began to bounce, her eyes glanced upward and she smiled the biggest smile we had ever seen cross her face. The next morning, we left for Rome.
While there, we visited Santa Agnese in Agone, the astonishingly gorgeous church erected on the site of St. Agnes’ martyrdom. Her skull rests there now, preserved in a magnificent reliquary. I carried Gianna as close as I could to the earthly remains of her second patroness as I offered up my prayers. We also visited St. Monica’s tomb.
The seminar began the next day. Dad took over on baby duty as I met with this remarkable group of 100 women. The theme of the conference was taken from John Paul’s letter: “God entrusts the human being to the woman.”
Discussions of motherhood – both physical and spiritual – were deeply woven into the seminar, as well as the concept of “the feminine genius.”
I reflected on how this genius was alive and well in all the women who had done so much for Gianna: my mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts and cousins. God had entrusted Gianna to the care of a community of women whose tangible acts of love helped preserve her life.
But I thought of the men, too. My husband, who had comforted me throughout the difficult pregnancy, who supported this unexpected trip to Rome but stayed home to provide for his family; my father, who had gone without Mom while she helped us, and who now accompanied me in a spirit of humble service; my brother who prayed that I could attend this seminar.
They all revealed a “masculine genius” by providing for, protecting and praying for Gianna and me. Then, to conclude the conference, we stood in the presence of another man, a spiritual father whose “genius” is at the service of his bride, the church.
We were escorted through the back rooms of the Vatican to arrive at the magnificent Clementine Hall for our private audience with Pope Francis. After some remarks, he received us one by one. When I stepped forward, the Holy Father touched Gianna’s cheek and asked me her name. He repeated it, giving her a little kiss on her head.
We told him about Gianna’s vision. The pope listened intently, then stepped closer, laid both of his hands on Gianna’s head, closed his eyes, bowed his head and offered a silent prayer. Again he turned to me, and I thanked him as I bent to kiss his ring. He nodded kindly and I returned to my seat, full of joy and gratitude.
On our last day in Rome, we gathered with 100,000 other people in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis celebrated Mass. In his homily, he emphasized the importance of gratitude, saying, “If we can realize that everything is God’s gift, how happy our hearts will be.”
Reflecting on this, I came to realize that even Gianna’s visual impairment is a gift. It has led us, and many others, to fervent prayer. It has given us cause to rejoice as we have seen signs of improvement over these past months. It has called us to entrust our daughter and her future to God. It has elicited compassion in her siblings and relatives, and helped Joe and me appreciate the little milestones we would otherwise have taken for granted. And, I suspect, it had something to do with the special graces we experienced on this unforgettable trip to Rome.
Refreshed from our pilgrimage, Dad, Gianna and I returned home. Two days later, as my son blew out the candles on his 4-year-old birthday cake, I couldn’t help but marvel at this incredible year full of unexpected gifts from God.
(Gina Loehr, a member of Shepherd of the Hills Parish, Eden, is the author of “Real Women, Real Saints” and several other books. She writes from Mount Calvary. Visit her online at www.ginaloehr.com)